Turning Copper Into Gold

For fine art assets there are many different definitions of value, including: insurance value, fair market value and cash value. In recent years another unexpected definition has found its way into the art world: spot value, a sculpture's worth based solely on its weight in precious metal.

The soaring price of copper due to increased global demand has lead to a series of art thefts of bronze statuary, the intention of which is solely to harvest an unlikely source of scrap copper, copper being the primary component of bronze. One case in Arizona involved an artist who, coming home one day, found gaping holes in the walls of his house, where bronze relief sculptures had once been. According to the artist, he has decided to concentrate on paintings now. Another artist in Vermont has also stopped working in bronze, due to the theft of 50 of his sculptures. Police recovered 31, but the artist claims the theft has stifled his creative process. Similar crimes have occurred around the world. A well-known two-ton bronze sculpture by Henry Moore, worth a reported $45 million on the traditional art market, was stolen in 2005 in England, authorities believe solely for its $10,000 worth of copper.

Honest metals dealers are often responsible for the recovery of such stolen art. A 3000-lb work by artist Philip Pavia, stolen from a midtown Manhattan office building, was saved when the scrap yard owner who received it confirmed his own suspicions that the work was stolen. As the primary destination for such stolen property, scrap metal processors will have an increased reporting duty concerning the identities of their clients if pending legislation is approved in a dozen states. Look for other states to follow.

What Can You Do to Safeguard Your Bronzes?

As one underwriter put it, "never presume that a sculpture will be too heavy to steal." Update your insurance appraisal every few years and purchase fine art insurance that will protect you in case of theft.

The FBI's Art Crime Team recommends that bronze owners keep an inventory with detailed descriptions which note: the type of object, title, artist, date or period, materials, measurements, inscriptions and markings, and any other distinguishing features. Also, take photos of your bronze-if an object is stolen a photograph will help prove it belongs to you. Then, keep a copy of the inventory with photographs in a safety deposit box or at some other off-site location. That way if your home is damaged by fire or flood, you won't lose your collection and your inventory.

Look for potential holes in your overall security measures, and then work to fix them. If you have people working in or around your home, ask for their references. Finally, if your bronzes are displayed outside, check them regularly to make sure everything is still there. Security cameras might also be a wise option, for bronzes of significant value.

If something is stolen, call the local police immediately and make sure no one disturbs the crime scene. Then contact your insurance company and file a claim. If the stolen item is uniquely identifiable, has historical significance, and is valued at more than $2,000, ask the police to add it to the National Stolen Art File, a computerized database of stolen art and cultural property maintained at FBI Headquarters. Many art and antiques periodicals publish photographs of stolen artworks, so providing them with the information and a photograph will help get the word out and may lead to a recovery.

Post script:
On the legitimate side of the scrap metal market, Antique Week recently reported that a new breed of buyer can be found these days wandering through antique malls "roaming the aisles with pocket scales and calculators." Realizing that the recent rise in precious metal prices went unnoticed by some antique sellers, who failed to adjust prices accordingly, scrap metal collectors are now trolling for antique sterling silver sewing shears, gold thimbles and anything else priced below the spot value of its precious metal.

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